Tuned In

The Sopranos Spins Its Wheels

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It’s appropriate that The Sopranos’ halfway-through-the-season finale should end at Christmas: it left so many shoes waiting to drop that they were like stockings hung by the chimney.

Consider the number of storylines raised early in the season left unresolved and in most cases barely moved forward. The young, gun-buying Arab associates of Christopher’s: terrorists or just garden-variety crooks? Tony’s turf war with New York: a burgeoning war or destined to fizzle out? Is Junior going to trial, and what happens if he does? Is Tony’s therapy going anywhere? Carmela’s questions about Ade’s disappearance: is she using them cannily as leverage over Tony, or did she just luck into using them to motivate him to help her real-estate career?

Answers: eh?, dunno, beats me, mmmmmmaybe, [shrug].

I’ve always defended the Sopranos against the fans who say it pays too much attention to domestic drama and not enough to whacking people. But last night’s lackluster finale was a capper to a torpid season that, after opening strongly, seemed to settle into a throat-clearing stasis. Neither the mob side nor the family side of the drama advanced anywhere. In fact, the whole season gave the lie to the idea that the series is most exciting when it’s most violent: plenty of people died this season, stabbed, shot, beaten, and yet 12 episodes later, we don’t seem to be anywhere we weren’t a dozen hours ago.

The rationalization I want to give is that David Chase is simply setting all the pieces in place for an explosive final eight episodes next January. But it would be easier to make that argument if it weren’t the same thing everyone was saying at the beginning of this season. The New Jersey / New York  conflict was foreshadowed years ago, for instance, and with occasional flare-ups, has always returned to the same threatening simmer. as it did last night. With subtle changes, most of Tony’s relationships are, more or less, where they were in March: with Carmela, with A.J., with Phil Leotardo, and so on.

That’s not to say the season hasn’t been well-written and -acted. The season ended on a nicely staged, ironic note, as Tony and Carmela gathered the family around, smugly telling themselves that they were good people with a good family and good home. But it was the same note of ironic smugness they started on in March. And the season had an intriguing theme of decay and corruption, of characters literally, rotting from the inside. I haven’t been counting, but I’m pretty sure nearly every episode had a scene of a major character vomiting—Vito, A.J. Tony, Chris, and last night Julianna Marguilies got in a special guest hurl. But this isn’t Fear Factor: at some point you gotta do something beside barf artfully.

It all makes me wonder, on the one hand, why Chase bothered making a sixth season, and, on the other, why he isn’t continuing the show indefinitely. If he feels the characters have nowhere to go, he could have nicely ended the show with Tony’s ignominious shooting at the hands of his senescent uncle. On the other hand, if Chase’s point is to show us that people don’t truly change, that life resists neat closure, that we all return, like drug-addicted Christopher, to our old patterns and habits in different ways, then there’s no reason not to keep doing it for years. Either way, this season, as nicely as the Gay Vito episodes were handled, seemed like filler to get the series to the 20 episodes that HBO wanted.

That said, I’ll tune in anxiously in the winter to see if the show finally delivers. As we’ve learned from the producers of The Sopranos, if there’s one thing as constant as the fact that people don’t change, it’s that people keep expecting that, next time, things will get better. They know us too well.